"This year's machine is not easy to ride," HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto said of the 2014 Honda RC213V. "More difficult than last year." Given the utter dominance of Marc Marquez in the first half of 2014, that seems hard to believe. It certainly left the journalists gathered for the special press conference convened by Honda to review the season befuddled. "But Honda bikes are always easy to ride!" declared one surprised reporter. "Our bike is very easy, I can ride it, but I don't get under two minutes," Nakamoto said. "But to find the last one tenth, two tenths is very difficult," he remarked.
A look at the timesheets from the test, or a chat with Marc Marquez or Dani Pedrosa about the 2015 Honda, and you understand the problem. On the last day of testing at Valencia, Marquez and Pedrosa finished first and second, but the satellite Hondas of Cal Crutchlow and Scott Redding were a little way off the pace. Crutchlow was eight tenths slower than Marquez, while Redding was struggling 1.6 seconds behind Marquez. In the last race of the 2014 season, Stefan Bradl's fastest lap was just under a second off the fastest race lap, and Alvaro Bautista a fraction slower. The Honda is obviously fast, but it is not easy to go fast on. Too aggressive, too hard to master, a bike with a lot of potential, but extracting that potential takes insight, experience, and the willingness to push an aggressive bike to its limits. It really demands the kind of dirt track background of Casey Stoner or, well, Marc Marquez.
With the 2015 bike, Honda may even have gone a step too far. Both Marquez and Pedrosa complained of the bike being too aggressive. Pedrosa didn't like the bike on corner exit, Marquez did not like the way that the engine braking system locked the rear on corner entry. Honda needed to go in another direction, different to the one they had pursued, opined Marquez. It definitely had strong points, but it needed both a lot of work on set up – both Marquez and Pedrosa had ridden the bike on a base set up, to get a feel for the machine – and a great deal of refinement.
Finding that refinement was not easy. Cal Crutchlow had spent his day playing around with lots of set up changes, pursuing too many different directions to be able to chase lap times. The bike was totally different, and he and new crew chief Beefy Bourguignon had a lot of work to do to find the best compromise. They were still some way off, but they had got a lot of work done.
Down at the other Honda garage, Scott Redding labeled his gap to the front runners 'unacceptable'. Redding's team had had a lot of work to do, just finding a way of working with a new rider, a new team and a new bike. The first challenge which the team faced was finding the right position on the bike for Redding, requiring changing the tank around to be wider and longer, and adapting the seat bumper to put Redding in the correct position. They had nothing really to go on, as Redding is much taller, and has a different riding style to the rest of the Honda men. With so much work to do, it was easy to fall behind.
Fortunately for Redding, they found a direction at the end of the test, lifting the rear of the bike to allow the Marc VDS rider to gain more traction and get out of the corner faster. That had been his issue all day, and it had taken until the end of the session to localize the problem. New crew chief Chris Pike said they were working one issue at a time, but each time they solved one thing, they had another issue to address. It will take the two Sepang tests for Redding and his new crew to find a real sense of direction, and from then, he can start to make some serious progression.
The future of the Honda lay in trying to make the bike easier to ride, Nakamoto told the press conference. They needed to copy Yamaha, build a bike which riders can jump on and be up to speed quickly. That is not easy, as ideally, HRC would create such a machine without losing any of the advantages the current RC213V has. Bike design is a compromise, Honda have moved in one direction for a number of years, but the appear to need a new heading.
For Yamaha, the heading was clear. The 2015 bike looks almost identical to the 2014 bike, and in fact consists of mostly the same components. A tweaked frame, swingarm, and engine were a small step forward, and a new exhaust increased the noise levels, but also improved behavior, as well as cutting weight. Both Rossi and Lorenzo were positive, though neither were particularly gushing with praise. "A step forward," was about as positive as either Jorge Lorenzo or Valentino Rossi was willing to be.
There was much more praise in the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha garage. Bradley Smith said the updates they had received from the factory made the bike much easier to ride, a big difference over the bike they had raced in 2014. Pol Espargaro, too, was positive, unsurprising given the fact that the Spanish youngster was so fast. Pol ended the day with the fourth fastest time, just three tenths of Marquez, and just over a tenth off Jorge Lorenzo.
There were plenty of surprises on the timesheets. Aleix Espargaro ended the day a second off the time of Marquez, a second closer to the leaders on the Suzuki than test rider Randy de Puniet had been during the race. That is not that surprising: Aleix Espargaro used the softer tire to set his fastest lap, and Suzuki have been playing with the power on the GSX-RR, after the bike blew two engines during practice for the race. Above all, Aleix is a young rider, very keen, and coming in with a year's racing experience, whereas De Puniet has spent the year testing, missing out on the white-hot heat of competition, which drives a rider to reach beyond himself.
Espargaro's Suzuki teammate Maverick Viñales was equally impressive. On his first time out on a MotoGP bike, Viñales was close to matching the times of De Puniet. What's more, photographers standing trackside reported the Spaniard as being very impressive to watch through Turn 13, getting the bike sideways up and over the hill, then pushing the bike hard to turn it through the last corner at Turn 14. Viñales is clearly an exceptional talent, but the bike itself is much better than expected. The Suzuki will do will in 2015, as long as the Hamamatsu factory can find some extra horsepower. That is clearly its biggest weakness at the current moment.
The improved level of equipment available to both Open class and satellite teams was clearly visible at Valencia. The Ducatis, especially, are a step up from what the teams were racing last year, as witnessed by the strong results of Yonny Hernandez, Danilo Petrucci, Hector Barbera and Mike Di Meglio. Petrucci put his Pramac Desmosedici GP14.2 up into seventh spot, ahead of the satellite Hondas of Cal Crutchlow and Scott Redding. Yonny Hernandez and Hector Barbera were just a second or so off the pace of Marquez, while Mike Di Meglio was just two seconds off the pace of Marquez, rather than the three he had been all weekend.
Jack Miller was similarly impressive. The Moto3 rookie ended the test 2.7 seconds behind Marc Marquez, despite it being his first test in MotoGP, and his first ride on the Honda RCV1000R. During the race, Nicky Hayden set the fastest race lap just 1.5 seconds slower than Marquez. Miller remains brimming with enthusiasm, finding it hard to believe his luck. Miller was another rider which photographers commented on as getting the bike wildly sideways through Turn 13, and making the tight left at the bottom of the hill. Miller has yet to crash in MotoGP, his maturity showing through, despite his young years.
At Forward Yamaha, both Stefan Bradl and Loris Baz tested Kayaba suspension. Neither man was particularly impressed, either by the product or by the engineers working on the project. Much work will be needed to persuade Stefan Bradl to accept Kayaba supension, given how vitriolic he was. The question will then come down to whether Forward are prepared the extra to secure an Ohlins deal, or whether team boss Giovanni Cuzari will take the money from Kayaba to develop their suspension. One fears that Cuzari will go for the money, rather than the quality.
The Aspar team produced a couple of surprises. Nicky Hayden is only a couple of tenths quicker on the RC213V-RS than he was on the RCV1000R, despite having found a little bit of top speed from the bike. The RC213V-RS is a little different to the previous Honda Open bike, needing more time and set up to get it right. Once again, the Aspar team will head to Sepang not entirely convinced by the data from the production Honda.
The one big surprise left is from Eugene Laverty. The Irishman was over two seconds off the pace at the test pm Sunday. But Laverty is already getting to grip wth the Drive M7 Honda, and most especially the front Bridgestone tires. Laverty is the first racer I have ever heard complain that the Bridgestone is not stiff enough, the front being soft under braking and corner entry. Every other rookie has said they have not been able to find the limits of the front Bridgestone tire, but Laverty found it straight away.
What is this down to? In part, down to being forewarned and therefore prepared. There is a good deal of mythology in the paddock concerning the Bridgestone tires, with many fearing them based on how hard the tire was back in 2010. A lot has changed since then, the tires being much easier to warm up and to use, changed in direct response to rider feedback. Eugene Laverty's brother Michael raced in MotoGP for the PBM team last year, and it is obvious that Michael has been giving brother Eugene tips on the tires. This means he can brake much harder than most rookies – and maybe even some regular riders – to get the tires to work and to allow him to gain time. It will be interesting to see how this develops over the 2015 seasons.
For now, the last day in the paddock has dawned. For everyone except for Jack Miller, who tests at Sepang at the end of November, they will not see a MotoGP machine until early February 2015. The winter is now officially started, with only a few points of light to ease the pain of the fans.